One of Winnipeg's most arson-prone neighbourhoods has seen an 80 per cent drop in the number of fires since the AutoBins were removed.

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One of Winnipeg's most arson-prone neighbourhoods has seen an 80 per cent drop in the number of fires since the AutoBins were removed.

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service data show 21 fires were reported in the William Whyte/Dufferin neighbourhood between October 2011 and July 2012 -- down from 127 during the same period the previous year. Bill Clark, WFPS deputy chief of operations, called the reduction "huge" and said he attributes the decline to the removal of the AutoBins and ongoing efforts to reduce fires within the community.

Winnipeg Free Press
North End resident Carl Prutton describes a recent fire he witnessed in the new garbage bins.

Winnipeg Free Press North End resident Carl Prutton describes a recent fire he witnessed in the new garbage bins.

The city replaced AutoBins that serviced 1,100 homes in the Dufferin/William Whyte neighbourhood last October as part of a pilot project to test new automated garbage carts. Officials hoped getting rid of the bins would cut the amount of bulky waste -- mattresses and furniture -- that attract arsonists.

The city hopes to finish removing the remaining AutoBins by the end of the week and clean up any remaining bulk waste early next week.

Clark said it was difficult for people in AutoBin areas to protect their property from arson when the heavy bins were next to garages and brimming with combustible items. He said the garbage carts give homeowners more control over waste near their property since they can easily move them away from the back lane once collection crews empty them.

"You can't lift a two-tonne bin away from your garage," Clark said. "The next thing you know, it's on fire and the thing is spreading and setting your house on fire."

Last month, Winnipeg started to replace the city's 5,800 AutoBins with automated garbage and recycling carts as part of its move to a new waste-collection system. The changeover is expected to curb illegal dumping and encourage recycling.

Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie said the initial fire statistics are encouraging, but the garbage carts will not completely solve the arson problem because the North End is still struggling with a way to remove bulk waste.

Many residents in fire-prone areas do not own a car to dispose of big items at the landfill and are unaware the city will currently pick up any bulk waste for free, he said. The city will start to charge residents in fire-prone areas a $5 fee on Oct. 1, which Eadie said residents will not want to pay.

He said residents are concerned arsonists will target other things, such as garages, and firefighters have stressed the importance of getting rid of material piled next to a garage. Eadie said the arson strike force continues to educate residents to report any suspicious activity.

Manitoba Avenue resident Rick Negrych agrees the neighbourhood likely won't see a reduction in arson in the long term. He said people continue to throw mattresses and diapers in the back lane, including some individuals who have tossed garbage over their fence instead of using the carts. He said the bulk-waste problem is a "people and an attitude problem" that won't go away just because the AutoBins are gone.

Last Saturday, someone broke into a neighbouring garage and set it on fire. Flames spread to Negrych's garage, causing damage.

"Things aren't going to change," he said. "The bin was gone for three weeks and I had a fire."

Carl Prutton saw a rolling, plastic bin on fire on Tuesday. "I saw a garbage on fire at Manitoba (Avenue) and Charles (Street)," said Prutton on Wednesday, as he walked on Manitoba Avenue.

City Coun. Ross Eadie stands near trash in a North End lane. He says the area has seen a huge drop in arsons following the removal of AutoBins  which often overflowed with trash.

PHOTOS BY PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

City Coun. Ross Eadie stands near trash in a North End lane. He says the area has seen a huge drop in arsons following the removal of AutoBins which often overflowed with trash.

"Not that many, but a few," said Prutton, when asked for an estimate of how many garbage fires he has seen since AutoBins were taken away. "They burned a plastic bin already, and that was a very dirty one, black smoke and whatever."

A city report released this year found 22 per cent of all 2011 arsons were garbage fires. Last summer, fire crews visited properties across the city in an effort to get homeowners and tenants to get rid of waste amid a rash of incidents in which garbage bins, garages, vehicles and houses were set on fire.

Clark said the community effort to reduce arson has been a success: "So far, so good, but I never count my chickens before they hatch."

 

-- with files from Kristy Hoffman

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca